Martha Jane Stone was a freshman at Transylvania University when a prominent professor asked if she could be the substitute organist on Easter Sunday at the small country church where he preached.
Stone was on a music scholarship, so she felt obligated.
The job seemed to suit her. Within a few months, Stone was the regular organist at New Union Christian Church — a role she has filled now for more than 71 years.
Last Sunday, the Disciples of Christ church at Old Frankfort Pike and Browns Mill Road in Woodford County celebrated its 175th anniversary. For more than 40 percent of that time, Stone has been right there, seated at the keyboard.
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Stone has been through two church buildings, three organs and five ministers. She looks at least a decade younger than her age, which she would rather not have published.
In addition to her work at New Union, Stone plays cello in the Lexington Philharmonic, where she has been a member for 36 years. Before that, she played with the old Lexington Symphony and taught piano and organ at Transylvania.
"She just has so much energy," said George Zack, who retired last year after 37 years as the Philharmonic's music director. "She is the kind of person who will do whatever is asked of her."
Zack said that whenever the Philharmonic travels around Kentucky to give concerts, people in the audience will come up afterward to find Stone. "They all seem to know her," he said.
Several years ago, church members got together and created a continuing-education scholarship for Philharmonic musicians in honor of Stone.
In her spare time, Stone, who never married, makes tatting pieces for gifts. She has written a cookbook and several books about the genealogy of her family, whose members included the late Pulitzer Prize-winning Kentucky author Robert Penn Warren.
But if there has been a constant in Stone's life, it has been New Union Christian Church. Formed in 1834 in a split from nearby Mount Vernon Baptist Church, the Disciples of Christ congregation has always been small, but well-educated and influential. Most of its pastors have been academics.
"This church has always had a commitment to progressive Christian thinking," said the Rev. Nancy Jo Kemper, the church's minister since 1996 and the recently retired executive director of the Kentucky Council of Churches.
Stone said she tries to please everyone in the congregation by choosing a variety of music. There are old standards such as Amazing Grace, a favorite of former Keeneland president Ted Bassett, and classics by such composers as Bach and Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns, which Stone prefers.
When Kemper was a student at Transy, she studied under Stone for a semester. Stone admitted that she was skeptical when her former student became her minister.
"She told people that if they hired a woman minister, she would quit," Kemper recalled.
That's true, Stone said. She had never heard a woman preach before, and she didn't know whether she would like it. But she quickly came around to Kemper.
"She has made me feel very useful and that I was making a contribution to the service," said Stone, who now plays two solos each Sunday, rather than simply preludes and hymns. "Since she's been here, I've had the freedom to choose the music. We work together very well."
Asked whether she has any plans to let someone else take her seat at the organ, Stone's constant smile quickly turns to a frown of mock horror.
"No, I don't plan to retire!" said Stone, noting that women in her family tend to live well into their 90s. "I don't think retirement is good for people."